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Jim Dey is a staff writer for The News-Gazette. His email is jdey@news-gazette.com.

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First, Gov. J.B. Pritzker tried to kill it.

Now, he’s trying to cut it.

Whatever happens, the fate of the state-backed school scholarship program for low-income families won’t be determined until completion of the 2021-22 budget negotiations between the governor and legislators.

They face a May 31 deadline, when the General Assembly is scheduled to adjourn. The new fiscal year begins July 1.

John Patterson, a spokesman for Democratic Senate President Don Harmon, said the status of the Invest in Kids program is “among the many things currently under review” and that multiple options are under consideration.

“President Harmon is interested in seeing if there are ways to support the program with federal dollars rather than having it solely rely on state funding,” he said.

The state’s budget picture has changed dramatically since early this year, when Pritzker presented what he described as a bare-bones $42 billion state budget.

Since then, the federal government has allocated many billions of dollars to the states. How Illinois proceeds with its $7.5 billion in bailout money remains to be seen.

Some suggest using the money to pay down debts while others want to use it to fund new programs. Invest in Kids is just one of many existing state programs caught in the middle of that debate.

The scholarship program is one of the provisions in a massive bipartisan educational reform agreement reached in 2017 between former Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and legislative Democrats led by House Speaker Michael Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton.

Madigan and Cullerton are gone now, replaced by Harmon and Emanuel “Chris” Welch, respectively.

Invest in Kids encourages private donations to organizations that award K-12 private-school scholarships to needy kids.

Under the plan, the state grants a 75 percent tax credit to donors. So a donor who contributes $10,000 to Invest in Kids would receive a non-refundable $7,500 credit on his state income tax. The overwhelming majority of donations are much smaller than that.

The state put a $100 million limit on donations, meaning it could cost the state a maximum of $75 million. Donations, however, have not approached the limit, even though more than 5,000 children per year have received scholarships since the program’s inception.

At the same time, the number of applications for scholarships have dwarfed the number of scholarships that can be funded.

Politically powerful teachers unions have led the opposition to Invest in Kids. Following their lead, Pritzker called in 2019 for ending the five-year pilot program ahead of schedule.

The governor relented after he and House GOP Leader Jim Durkin reached a compromise on that and other issues during last year’s budget process.

This year, however, Pritzker has proposed reducing the tax credit from 75 to 40 percent, making it less appealing to donors. He estimated that reducing the tax credit by nearly

half would generate roughly $14 million in additional revenue for the state.

Pritzker’s proposal puts legislators in a tricky spot. It’s a relatively low-profile issue, but none of them wants to be perceived as posing a threat to educational scholarships for low-income children, many of whom are minorities.

“I’m not for yanking a scholarship out from under a kid and his family,” said state Sen. Chapin Rose, R-Mahomet. “I support the scholarships.”

State Sen. Jason Barickman, R-Bloomington, said he, too, supports the scholarship program but that he has no idea how the issue will be resolved.

“It is an unusual issue. It has bipartisan support and it has bipartisan opposition,” he said.

Perhaps reflecting the sensitivity of the issue, three other area legislators were not willing to discuss the issue.

An assistant to state Rep.

Mike Marron, R-Fithian, said he

“is not interested in speaking on that topic.”

A media aide to state Sen. Scott Bennett, D-Champaign, said he “doesn’t have any statement at this time.”

State Rep. Carol Ammons, D-Urbana, did not respond to inquiries.

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached at jdey@news-gazette.com or 217-393-8251.

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